The president of the Burmese Rohingya Community in Australia, Kyaw Maung Shamsul Islam told Mizzima in a Burmese-language phone interview conducted late on Wednesday that three of the protesters had been taken to hospital because of the effects of their fast.
According to him, all 42 of the Rohingya refugees began the strike while held at the immigration detention centre in Darwin, the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory, but 11 dropped out because of the physical toll.
Kyaw Maung said the 42 refugees were transferred to Darwin from Australia’s offshore detention centre on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean two months ago with the promise that they would be quickly processed and released. The group comprises two groups of Rohingya who were intercepted eight and 11 months ago while attempting to reach Australia from Indonesia. He said they the Rohingya protesters were very worried about the safety of the loved ones they had left behind.
“They have spent too much time in the detention centre. It has been a long time since immigration officers and social service groups have visited the detention center. So, they’ve lost their rights and have gone on a hunger strike”, said Soe Lwin, an employee from the Voluntary Social Work in Brisbane, capital of Queensland State, said.
According to Australia’s public broadcaster ABC, Australian immigration officials in Darwin coldly responded to inquiries about the hunger strike by saying that such actions would not speed up the processing of their asylum applications.
Suicide attempt unsuccessful
An Australian newspaper the Northern Territory News reported yesterday that one of the hunger strikers had attempted to hang himself on Tuesday morning but a fellow refugee intervened to save his life.
Immigration Department national communications branch manager Sandi Logan declined to reveal details in the report but said the suicidal refugee was “receiving appropriate care, including mental health support”. At the time of writing Mizzima was unable to contact any representatives of the Australian government for further comment.
Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for Australian advocacy network Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney told Mizzima that he had recently spoken on the phone with an Afghan refugee who was detained in the same area as the group of Rohingya hunger strikers. The Afghan described many of the Rohingya as “very weak” because of the far north Australian heat and their refusal to drink liquids.
A long-time refugee and rights advocate based in Sydney, Rintoul said the Australian government’s security check process was what was causing the lengthy delays in the Rohingya’s asylum claims. He criticised the government for stalling the process despite the fact that Australia considers the Rohingya a resettlement priority.
Rintoul told Mizzima that there was “no justifiable reason” for continuing to detain the refugees, adding that the government has refused to disclose what the security screening process entails.
Rintoul and others seeking to help the detained refugees have extremely limited access to them as they are housed far away from the Australian population centres. Further complicating matters is the government’s policy of limiting each detained refugee to make no more 10 minutes a week in phone calls. He believed this was one of the main reasons that details of the hunger strike have trickled out very slowly.
A contested history
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority group that hail from Burma’s western Arakan State and who speak a separate language from Arakanese or Burmese. Despite the fact that many can prove their families have lived in Burma for several generations, most Rohingya do not have Burmese citizenship. Many Arakanese nationalist organisations dispute the legitimacy of the Rohingya people, claiming they are merely Bengalis, a claim Rohingya activists say is a deliberate over-simplification and a misrepresentation of history.
Rohingya activists point out that during the time of U Nu’s democratic post-war government, Rohingya were elected to the national parliament and Burmese state radio even had regular Rohingya language broadcasts.
Over the last 20 years tensions in Arakan state between Muslims and Buddhists have been exacerbated by scarce land resources. Outbreaks of violent intra-communal bloodshed that many Rohingya believe were instigated by the Burmese military regime have sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh. It is estimated that at present several hundred thousands Rohingya living illegally as refugees in Bangladesh.
The plight of the Rohingya briefly made headlines across the world last year when dozens of boats containing Rohingya refugees were pushed back into the ocean by Thai authorities.
In an attempt to counter the sympathetic coverage the Rohingya boat people received, Burma’s top diplomatic representative in Hong Kong Consul-General Ye Myint Aung sent a letter to his fellow diplomats in the territory that stated his regime’s position on the Rohingya issue. In the letter he claimed that the Rohingya could not possibly be Burmese citizens because their “complexion is dark brown” and that they are as “ugly as ogres”.
The Rohingya communities’ most famous political prisoner is Kyaw Min, leader of the small Arakan-based opposition party, the National Democratic Party for Human Rights (NDPHR) and an MP elected from Arakan State in the May 1990 election. Kyaw Min, served as a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s alliance of ethnic-minority MPs, called the Committee for the Restoration of the People’s Parliament (CRPP).
Kyaw Min was arrested in 2005 after meeting representatives from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Rangoon. He was stripped of his citizenship and given a 47-year jail sentence. His wife Daw Tiza, his two daughters Kin Kin Nu and Way Way Nu and his son Maung Aung Naing were all given 17-year terms and also made stateless.
Australia tried to trade Rohingya refugees for Haitians and Cubans
In April 2007, the Australian government proposed a US-Australian refugee deterrence trading plan. To launch the programme, the Australian government wanted to send eight Rohingya refugees and 82 Tamil refugees who had been detained attempting to make it to Australia by ship with a similar number of Haitian and Cuban refugees who had been captured at sea by American coast guard authorities.
Australia’s then Prime Minister John Howard claimed the bartering of asylum-seekers would limit the number of refugees trying to flee to Australia. “I think people who want to come to Australia will be deterred by anything that sends a message that getting to the Australian mainland illegally is not going to happen,” Mr Howard told a reporter from The Age newspaper when this initiative was announced.
The famously tough-on-refugees prime minister added “I think people who set out for this country with the full knowledge that they’ll be prevented from coming to the Australian mainland will be additionally deterred” by the US-Australia trading scheme.
According to Rintoul, following a national outcry from refugee advocates and opposition politicians, the Howard government’s refugee-trading proposal was abandoned and no refugees were actually exchanged.